Sandy Hook: Mental health, not gun control, is the answer to mass shootings

In the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a cry has gone up for gun control and ways to keep guns from people with mental illness. What we really need is to address the causes of these shootings – issues of mental health and social isolation.

Phil Simpson/handout/Reuters
Nancy Lanza is pictured on a cruise at Newport Harbor, R.I., on October 11, 2008. Lanza was killed by her son Adam Lanza before his shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Op-ed contributor Allan Richarz writes: 'Any real solution attempting to prevent future mass shootings must focus less on the gun, and more on what factors drive people to pick up that gun.' Limiting gun rights is 'simplistic' and not the answer.

By 4:30 p.m. on the Friday of the Newtown, Conn., shooting, the Internet was awash with calls for action from pundits and citizens to prevent similar tragedies from recurring. These calls centered on gun control – an unfortunate, but not surprising, reaction that, despite its best intentions, steers the conversation away from meaningful reforms in the United States by merely restricting gun rights.

Ultimately, a firearm is a mere tool – an inanimate piece of metal incapable of action without human intervention. Any real solution attempting to prevent future mass shootings must focus less on the gun, and more on what factors drive people to pick up that gun and engage in indiscriminate killing. In particular, preventing future mass shootings requires a frank look at underlying, and often unaddressed, mental illness and social isolation in America.

Even in the 21st century, stigma surrounding mental and emotional health persists. It is an uncomfortable topic that consequently receives little public discussion. Even in the wake of Newtown, one line of questioning asks: “How can we keep guns out of the hands of those with mental illness"? What we should be asking, however, is what avenues are available to help those individuals, and to what extent society is responsible for assisting them.

American society has painted itself into a corner on mental illness: Many individuals hesitate to seek help for fear of the attached stigma and ostracizing; their families refuse to inform the authorities for those same reasons, while schools and employers can often do nothing because of “privacy” concerns (a.k.a., fear of litigation). Another issue is access to treatment and cost. 

Even addressing these root problems, though, is no panacea. Hand-in-hand with the conversation about how to help those struggling with mental illness, must come an examination of social isolation in American society. Among mass shooters in the US, a striking pattern is emerging: troubled, adolescent males, and middle-aged, often white, males as the perpetrators. The adolescents are often intelligent and quiet, but also described as “weird” and aloof. Many of the middle-aged men carry the bitterness and helplessness felt in a society from which they are increasingly isolated through divorce, layoffs, and rapid advances in technology.

In both cases, they often want to be a “somebody” who makes a name for themselves by going out in a blaze of bloodshed and infamy.

Simply making assault rifles harder to obtain will not solve the problem of mass violence. If an individual is desperate or delusional enough, he will simply move to the next available weapon. The world just saw tragic evidence of that in central China. Unable to obtain firearms, a man went on a stabbing spree in an elementary school in Chenpeng village, also on Dec. 14. He wounded 23 students – admittedly a less severe outcome than 20 students killed, but nonetheless part of a troubling pattern of mass-stabbings in the country.

By addressing the underlying causes behind mass shootings, the US also has the opportunity to avoid a response that restricts rights in the wake of a national tragedy.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, part of the government’s domestic response was an arguable curtailing of privacy, speech, and association rights. Now, in the wake of Newtown, comes the prospect of undermining rights to gun ownership. “Kill the Second Amendment. Not children,” one sign read at a protest outside the National Rifle Association headquarters in Washington this week.

The US, however, must not fall back on simplistic answers. While it may be uncomfortable and expensive, the real solution lies in addressing mental health issues and the social isolation that drive individuals to commit acts of mass murder.

Allan Richarz is a law student living near Toronto, Ontario.

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